By Kristian DePue

Two years ago, there was a woman in Colorado Springs who was living and sleeping on the streets with her young daughter. The mother, diagnosed with a bipolar disorder, was also addicted to drugs and abusing alcohol, creating a chaotic world during her child’s formative years. Eventually, the grandparents took custody of their grandchild, and with tuition assistance, they enrolled the young girl in one of Diakonia’s preschools.

Diakonia, in Greek, means “service.” And for the last seven years, Diakonia Preschools have been proactively serving children and their families in the Colorado Springs area to provide a foundation for future success.

Tiffiny Pieper is executive director and founded Diakonia in 2010. Since then, the nonprofit has successfully grown from a single preschool to five. Four of the preschools are housed in local community centers: Deerfield Hills, Meadows Park, Hillside and Westside. The fifth is Wilson Christian, Diakonia’s faith-based preschool.

Pieper, a Colorado native, has lived in Colorado Springs for 15 years and has been in the field of early education for two decades. She earned a master’s in early education, and has completed additional graduate coursework in leadership and management. She previously worked at Alliance for Kids, El Paso County’s early childhood council, as a quality improvement manager.

Diakonia employs 16, 12 of whom are teachers. The school currently has 110 students.

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“Our staff believes in our mission: To help every child succeed and thrive,” said Pieper. “We work to achieve that mission by providing affordable, high-quality education.”

Diakonia, beyond its tuition fees, is primarily funded through grants and donations. Tuition assistance is offered to families on a sliding scale based on income. In two of the preschools, more than 95 percent of the enrolled students are on tuition assistance.

Diakonia’s curriculum goes beyond mathematics, literacy and other pillars of academic education, to include the promotion of social skills, emotional regulation and self-care. Part of the daily schedule for the children is a question of the day, written and displayed for literacy and comprehension. Regular hand washing is also intentionally built into the routine to teach the importance of personal hygiene and health, and to promote a culture of wellness.

“All our activities are intentional, with a natural approach to holistic education,” said Pieper. “We want to establish an environment of community. Our students each have their own assigned role, with specific responsibilities to serve the community of the classroom. This helps instill a sense of belonging and value. We also offer parenting workshops and trainings because it is about the whole family. It’s not just about your child at the age of 3.”

Despite great success over the last seven years, Diakonia certainly faces challenges.

“Finances are our biggest struggle, particularly for tuition assistance, but also for our staff,” said Pieper. “I’m very passionate about the retention, retainability and professionalism of our staff. They deserve more for what they give. Marketing is our other big challenge. We want to increase awareness of what we offer to the community of Colorado Springs.”

The nonprofit is participating in the Give! Campaign for its first year, with the hope that it will help meet those needs.

“We’re so excited! We really want people to know about us and what we offer. So far, being a part of the Give! Campaign has already been great for connecting and sharing with others,” said Pieper. “Everything has been like this path; when we encounter a problem, a solution comes. People come to us to offer provisions for our kids. Doors and windows open up. It’s been an amazing journey.”

Diakonia is actively gathering data with the help of Child Care Resource & Referral to learn how to better serve Colorado Springs. The information acquired through the community needs assessment will help direct its upcoming strategic planning meeting in January.

As for that young girl who entered Diakonia’s care two years ago — she is now in elementary school and was quickly placed in an advanced reading group.

“She is doing phenomenally in kindergarten,” Pieper said. “I just received an update from her grandmother. She credits both her granddaughter’s academic success and emotional maturity to the preparation provided by Diakonia and our loving staff.”